Fame is a sweet poison you drink of first in eager gulps. Then you come to loathe it.” Richard Burton’s aphorism, and the context of his turbulent stardom, is still a near perfect summary of the nature of fame; but as our polarised society and media-industrial complex continue to engorge and mutate, new strains of this toxin hit the market almost daily.
Two years on, the collective guilt felt by many of us over the death of Caroline Flack, which has never truly subsided, was again brought to the fore by her mother’s forceful accusation yesterday that the police treated Caroline differently – more harshly – simply because she was famous.
Whether or not this was the case, it is my view that fame has never been so dangerous, never been more toxic. The commodification of fame has existed for a century. Fame is a value that allows you to sell a product, and for decades stars have been treated merely as the human embodiment of this value. And like any commodity, once their fame, their value, begins to wane they cease to become useful.
There’s an old Hollywood legend about a Danish actor called Gwili Andre, who found success in the silent era but her voice didn’t work for the age of sound. This caused her to fade into obscurity during the advent of the “talkie”. She died in a mysterious fire in 1959, and ever stories have circulated that the cause of the fire was a kind of funeral pyre Andre had built out of her old press cuttings.
What makes Andre’s story, pyre or not, even more tragic is that her fame was in part manufactured by lavish publicity campaigns. Organic fame is hard enough to manage, but prefabricated fame is cheap, flimsy and rarely lasts long, to the detriment of those who experience it.
These truths are as old as the concept of fame itself, but in the 2020s the dangers are potent and multifaceted. First, there’s the way fame comes to be. The reality TV production line in the 2000s might have ground to a halt but it created a world in which people are famous for fame’s sake rather than as a result of any particular talent.
Experiencing fame without talent is to exist on the constant precipice of anonymity. In desperation to claw themselves away from this cliff edge and into the deceitful comfort of the limelight, celebrities will willingly sacrifice their principles and even their dignity. Some effectively donate their personal lives to the tabloid and celebrity media, some stoop to humiliating depths by agreeing to be part of whatever tawdry novelty sideshow will continue their exposure, and some will spout whatever hateful opinion or item of fake news a loyal sect of the internet will laud them for.
Legacy media and online evangelists will always praise the glittering riches of celebrity, but the fame superhighway is littered with the bleached bones of many who have walked that path: Jade Goody, Charlie Sheen, Corey Feldman, Mackenzie Phillips, Katie Price, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Macaulay Culkin, Anna Nicole Smith – all have met their unfortunate fate on the boulevard of broken dreams.
Social media has compounded this issue by giving wannabe celebrities the power to create fame without the need of a broker. It’s far from democratic but nor is social-media fame any more meritocratic. Sure, there’s a skill to painstakingly stage-managing every detail of your appearance and curating every public moment of your life, but people’s desperation to do so in pursuit of fame has created a lower caste of celebrities in the form of the influencer market. Since influencers’ value to brands depends directly on their popularity (and, increasingly, vice versa) this only increases the fervour of their pursuit of fame, and the likelihood that they will be dropped at a moment’s notice, the moment the likes and shares dip below market value.
Which brings me to another reason why fame is more toxic than ever; the speed and brutality with which it can turn negative, or even come to an end.
Scandal and the downfall of celebrity have always carried with them tremendous news value and been sought jealously by certain segments of the media and society. The infamous MGM publicity machine-cum-protection racket run by Howard Strickling, the notorious head of publicity from the 1920s to the 1960s, ensured, at great cost to the talent, that Hollywood’s finest were protected from such scandals.
But even the dastardly Strickling would have his work cut out in an era where access to means of recording and communicating celebrity scandals is practically universal, and motivation to do so has scarcely been higher – politicised and tribalised by the culture wars, and industrialised by the spate of celebrity downfalls referred to as “cancel culture”.
Every celebrity now exists under a microscope with a target on their back and a bounty on their head. And every member of the public is armed with ways to bring them in – hot or cold – and collect the bounty.
This situation is still particularly bad for women, constantly held to higher standards and vilified for things that men brush off even in today’s cynical shark tank of public opinion.
What makes the experience of toxic fame more shocking for its victims is that they are, for a short time, often insulated from its danger by a bubble of managers, agents, brand partners and, yes, publicists, razor-teeth hiding behind sycophantic smiles and cooing platitudes designed to foster whatever infantile god complex will get the next deal across the line.
If, as Burton seemed to suggest, fame is a noxious but highly addictive drug, then we live in a society where it’s cheap to get high, but the quality of the drug is variable, the supply is controlled by a cartel of enablers who can cut your supply at a moment’s notice, and there’s no such thing as rehab. Fame has never been more dangerous.